Exploring Petaluma Gap wines

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It's just about time for the grape harvest in Petaluma, and the busy crush that will produce the delicious wines for which Sonoma County is famous. Vintners at Petaluma's 70-plus vineyards are checking the sugar content of their grapes daily, waiting for it to hit the magic number indicating that the grapes are ready to harvest.

Sonoma County is divided into several officially recognized wine regions, or appellations, and within the Sonoma Coastal AVA appellation sits the region known as the Petaluma Gap. It stretches from the Pacific coast down Valley Ford Road through Petaluma, over to the hills that border the Petaluma Valley to the mouth of the Petaluma River in San Pablo Bay. The so-called "gap" is actually a break in the coastal mountain range that allows the cool Pacific fog to reach far inland, creating an ideal climate for pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah grapes.

According to Dr. Liz Thach, director of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance (PGWA), and professor of Wine Business and Management at SSU, grapes have been grown in the Petaluma Valley since they were first planted by General Mariano Vallejo in the 1860s. The numerous vineyards that operate here cover more than 3,000 acres and sell their grapes to more than 80 wineries in other parts of Sonoma and Napa counties.

The region has most recently been dubbed "one of the top ten up and coming wine regions around the US" by travel publication Travel Nerd. A panel of experts at a recent tasting held by the PGWA agreed that the wines have their own distinct profile, described as "elegance with a touch of the wild."

The experts determined that the region's pinot noir, for instance, exhibited "rich red and blue fruit with wonderful savory notes of sage, mint and wild herbs."

It was a local pinot noir that first turned Kamal Azari, of Azari Vineyards, onto the business of winemaking. Formerly a professor at UC Berkeley, Azari said he was drinking a Sonoma County pinot noir with a colleague one evening and fell in love with the taste. When an opportunity arose to buy property in Sonoma County, he did so. He and his wife now run the sustainably farmed vineyard and winery at 1399 Springhill Road. They grow their own grapes, crush them on site, and cellar and bottle their wines under the Azari Vineyard and Corkscrew labels. They have grown pinot poir, riesling and shiraz grapes since 2000 and produce pinot noir, shiraz wines and a dry riesling. They invite people to come taste them.

"We like people to come and share their thoughts," Azari said. In the relatively short time that he has been producing wine, Azari has won many awards, including from the prestigious SF Chronicle competition.

The Azaris aren't the only ones who have flocked to the Gap region to grow wine. Cecilia Enriquez, who owns and operates Enriquez Wines, is one of the few Hispanic female winery owners in the county. She moved to California from the east coast after a wrong turn on a family wine tasting trip brought her to Sonoma County. She says that she didn't know much about wine making until she started working in the industry.

It was her father, who co-owns the estate, who got excited about owning a property in Petaluma after researching parcels in Sonoma county and tasting the wines produced from the grapes on this ranch.

"We didn't pick this property; this one picked us," she says. The vineyard, Flying Rooster, is located at 3062 Old Adobe Road, on which Enriquez grows 29 acres of grapes and produces pinot, petite syrah, muscat, and sauvignon blanc wines. She is also one of the few U.S. producers of tempranillo wines (a red Spanish-style wine described as one of the most food friendly). And she produces a brisa, a farmer's blend of white wines, which utilizes the sauvignon blanc and muscat grapes from her vines, and chardonnay from a neighbor's. She relates that it tastes different every year, depending on the available grapes.

Keller Estates, one of the largest of the Petaluma Gap wineries, operates the 650-acre La Cruz ranch at 5875 Lakeville Highway. Arturo and Deborah Keller purchased the property in 1989 and planted their vineyards there, first chardonnay and then pinot noir grapes. They then added pinot gris and syrah. All their wines are estate grown and their daughter, Ana, is the head winemaker. They have won their share of awards, among them recognition for their chardonnays and pinot noirs by both the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.

Not so far away, Flocchini Wines represents a growing trend among Petaluma farm owners. Since 1920, the Flocchini family operated a dairy on their property at 7050 Old Lakeville Highway. After the death of their mother in 1999, the five Flocchini siblings reevaluated the feasibility of a dairy and decided that the best use of their land would be to grow grapes.

They sold their dairy herd and began selling their harvest to other wineries. In 2005, having a surplus of grapes, they decided to produce a wine under their own label and Flocchini Wines was born. The business has remained in the family, with 23-year-old grandson Jordan Flocchini now serving as the chief administrator and marketing manager. They estimate their harvest to be about 80 tons, which are picked at night.

Corda Winery, operated by David Corda, is located at 845 Chileno Valley Road. In 2000, Corda decided to sell off the dairy business that his family had operated on the land since 1927. He reasoned that the climate was the same as that of the Carneros area, which was famous for its wine and since his land was already paid for, he decided to embark on a "new adventure" of wine production. He describes the winery as producing small boutique wines, with 40 acres of grapes producing 500 cases a year. He works with winemaker Jason Baker to produce pinot noirs and a red table wine.

Kastania Vineyards, located on 4415 Kastania Road, is owned and operated by Linda and Hoot Smith and their family on a piece of land that has been in the Smith family since the 1860s. Their first harvest was in 1997, and they concentrate on pinot noir and Bordeaux blends, winning awards from the Wine Spectator and San Francisco Chronicle Wine competitions.

These are just a sampling of the many wineries close to Petaluma. For more information and a more complete listing of wineries, contact the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance at www.petalum

(Contact Lynn Haggerty King at argus@arguscou

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